The Art of Making Silk Flowers
Making silk flowers is a unique Beijing folk craft and a national-level intangible cultural heritage item. Hua’erjin is a well-known family in making silk flowers, with Jin Tieling as a fifth generation inheritor.
The “Hua’erjin” family has worked in making silk flowers for more than a century. Jin Tieling is the fifth generation inheritor.
Beijingers love growing flowers and therefore naturally enjoy visiting flower shops. In old Beijing, however, flower shops that only sold fresh flowers were rare. According to historical records, most flower shops in the past, besides selling fresh flowers, also sold silk flowers that were manufactured in a workshop at the back of the shop. Such flower shops were mainly located in Chongwenmenwai, along a famous street named Huashi (“flower market”) Street, so named for the products sold there. The word hua (“flower”) in the street name refers specifically to silk flowers, rather than fresh flowers as one might expect, and is pronounced in the Beijing dialect by adding an “er” sound at the end of the word hua— or Hua'ershi.
Making silk flowers is a unique Beijing traditional folk craft and a national-level intangible cultural heritage item. According to records, making silk flowers, also known as jinghua (Beijing flowers), originated in the Liao (AD 916–1125) and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties. The flowers are made from silk, silk fabric and satin, and the process consists of various steps, such as chiseling, dyeing, moulding, starching and assembling. In Yanjing suishiji (“seasonal records of Yanjing”), it is described as follows: “Go towards the east of Chongwenmenwai. There is a fair on the 4th, 14th and 24th days of the month in the first month of the lunar year. At the fair, women wear paper flowers instead of fresh flowers in their hair. The flowers, which are made of different materials such as silk fabric, rice paper and other natural materials, are hardly distinguishable from real flowers.”
Beijing is the hometown of silk flowers, and Huashi Street is the place to find them. Among all the skillful craftsmen in the flower market area, the well-known manufacturing family called Hua’erjin is the most famous. This shop not only represents the art of Beijing silk flowers, but also successful craftsmen of old Beijing.
Jin Tieling is the fifth-generation owner of Hua'erjin, and is a representative and inheritor of this tangible cultural heritage. Before he was ten, he started learning the art from his father, Jin Yulin, and helped out with the work at home. He has been in this trade for about half a century and is now over 60 years old. Jin believes that he will never be able to be as remarkable as his father. “My father was an Imperial Guard who protected the emperor. He was a talented man who could wrestle, and he even became a national model worker, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a delegate of the National People's Congress.” Speaking of his father, Jin Tieling could not hide his admiration. He said proudly, “He was a great figure!”
Hua'erjin stands out among the hundreds of silk flower shops in Beijing, and has gained considerable fame. This was possible only because of Jin Yulin. For three generations, the Jin family made flowered hairpins as a living and were paid by the imperial family. Jin Yulin belonged to the fourth generation of his family to continue this trade. At that time, Hua'erjin had already gained a reputation at the flower market. According to Hua’erjin caixiang (“conjectures about Hua'erjin”), written by Han Chunming in 1904, before Jin Yulin turned 13, he had already joined hands with his father to complete the tasks assigned by the palace, even though he had only four years of
experience. Within ten days, they completed making lotus silk flowers in time for Empress Dowager Cixi's (regency: 1835–1908) birthday on October 10 of the lunar calendar. The lifelike lotuses filled Kunming Lake at the summer palace, greatly pleasing Empress Dowager Cixi. After that, the Imperial Household Department started designating Hua'erjin to make whatever flowers the palace required.
Jin Yulin was gifted and could easily grasp the skills required in making silk flowers. However, it was also due to his intelligence that he picked up knowledge at random and was curious about almost everything. Making silk flowers was just another fun thing for him to do. Apart from this, he was also interested in Peking Opera, collecting and wrestling on horseback. He later became an Imperial Guard at the palace. In 1914, the Imperial Guard was re-organised, so Jin Yulin left the Forbidden City and returned to the silk flower shop at Huashi Street. With his experience from working at the palace and his popularity among the public, he managed Hua'erjin well. In the following year, Jin Yulin's father passed the business over to him.
Ten years earlier, when Hua'erjin had been tasked to make silk flower lotuses for Empress Dowager Cixi's birthday, Jin Yulin was still an assistant to his father and attended to important processes like spraying the flowers with fragrance and making dewdrops on the petals. However, not long after Jin Yulin took over the business, he accepted a business offer that no other silk flower store dared to take up; it was this deal that made him famous.
In 1916, a foreigner from the Beijing Legation Quarter brought a fresh Chinese rose as a specimen to Hua'erjin and requested that some flower accessories be made based on this flower. Jin Yulin used sateen to create the petals and then bonded the petals, branches and leaves nicely into one, creating a bright pink replica of the Chinese rose. The foreigner was so amazed by the different tones on the petals, dewdrops and fragrance that he placed a huge order.
In 1954, Jin Yulin took the lead in joining Beijing's first silk flower producers' cooperative and later became the chief designer of the
Beijing Silk Flower Factory. He earned a monthly salary of 170 yuan, which was much higher than the factory manager and almost the same as cadres at the department level and university professors. The 60-year-old Jin Yulin was still energetic then. He created a unique pot of flowers with cotton, an idea that was fresh and new for everyone. Jin Yulin was the first person to use cotton as a material for making flowers. Under his guidance, the Beijing Silk Flower Factory became the benchmark for the industry nationwide, as well as the top enterprise in the city for many years. In 1972, the shopping street of Wangfujing re-established its customer service section for Beijing arts and crafts and required silk flowers for its display. At that time, the silk flowers in Beijing Silk Flower Factory were damaged and could not be reproduced, so the person in charge came to Jin Yulin for help. Jin was already in his eighties and was ill; as he made the silk flowers, he would often cough up blood. Jin Tieling, who was in middle school, came home one night and saw his father working tirelessly at his desk despite his pain. Jin Tieling was so touched that he was moved to tears.
Jin Tieling will never forget one beautiful evening when 16-year-old Jin Tieling and his father were walking along a street, in the glow of sunset and with an autumn breeze blowing, each holding a pot of silk chrysanthemums. He saw his father's glistening grey hair in the light of the setting sun. A light breeze gently ruffled his father's hair and then all of a sudden, Jin Tieling could feel his father's passion. He looked at his father with tears in his eyes, and the corners of his father's mouth turned up into a smile.
The world of beautiful flowers provides infinite inspiration for silk flower craftsmen, and producing silk flowers that look exactly like real fresh flowers is Hua'erjin's speciality. Every silk flower is made with artistic innovation and great skill.
In Jin Tieling's memory, his father would always visit parks and fields to observe the colours and forms of fresh flowers before making silk flowers. To make plum blossoms, for example, Jin Yulin spent several hours standing in the snow and cold observing the flowers outdoors. When he had to make a bonsai asparagus fern, he observed the plant over and over again, and even looked at the small pieces of spun yarn with a magnifying glass before he found his inspiration. Many were amazed by the end product but did not know the effort behind it. During the conceptual stage, Jin Yulin would wake up in the middle of the night to work. Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to recreate an asparagus fern like the one he made.
After designing the flower's shape, the next step is to select the material. There are many types of material with different characteristics that silk flower craftsmen are particular about. Silk, damask silk, spun silk, and rice paper are some of the materials used for making silk flowers. Silk can create a bright, real and elegant effect and is suitable for dyeing. Yarn is permeable, exquisite and soft, while satin is shiny and soft, making it suitable for making headdress flowers; rice paper is actually made from a type of plant called Tetrapanax papyrifer (rice-paper plant) and thus produces a realistic effect.
However, as most of these materials are too soft to start with, they have to be processed with starch before they are firm and flat enough to make petals and leaves and be ready for dyeing. In the process of starching, the right amount of starch must be used—not too much or it will be sticky, but too little will make it too soft. After this, the material is left to dry and then moulded into the shape of petals with a chisel. Finally, the material is ready for dyeing.
Dyeing is a key process in the making of silk flowers. The lobe and base of the petal on every type of flower is different and the colour and luster on the flower bud and edges vary. Hence, dyeing is a difficult task, as every small adjustment to the dye can alter the result. According to Jin Tieling, his father was so skillful at dyeing that he could add water to the remaining dye to create the same tone.
In fact, this was not Jin Yulin's personal
skill, but a special dyeing technique of Hua'erjin, borne out of long experience and practice. First, the dye must be decocted in a ceramic pot, as this will give a better effect than dye decocted in a metal pot. After this, the sediment is removed from the bottom of the pot. Second, the dye colour must be carefully researched to get the exact right hue, and then the dye must be adjusted by checking for spots of colour in the liquid. In addition, there is a technique called “colour topping,” where the flower is dyed three or four times to get the right tone. In a nutshell, the objective of dyeing is to create a bright colour that looks fresh and alive.
After completing the dyeing process, Jin Tieling places the dyed petals neatly on a tray to prepare for the next step: moulding the petals.
Most of the tools used to mould the petals are wooden ones. The shape of the arch on the petal differs according to the degree of flower bloom. Jin Tieling uses a variety of tools, including tweezers, glue, a pigment dish and different types of small mallets. The mallets are specially made for moulding silk flower petals; their handles can be gripped easily while the mallet heads come in different sizes and shapes, sharp or round. Jin Tieling places a pile of petals on his palm and uses a round-headed mallet to press against them. He then removes the petals that had clung to the mallet, and leaves them to dry.
Jin Tieling said, “Great attention must be paid to the moulding process since there are hundreds or even thousands of petals, and how to arrange and stick them together to make a flower head depends on one's own aesthetics; without this, one could make flowers that look unreal. Ensuring moisture content is also important. If the flower petal is too wet, it will be difficult to mould, but if a petal is too dry it may have creases.” After the petals are dried, Jin Tieling glues them together with the help of tweezers. Each flower contains a bud with yellow-coloured pollen grains. Jin Tieling once made a project involving red plum blossoms with 60 pollen grains in each flower; in total, he made a few thousand pollen grains for that project. The final step is to attach all the parts of the flower together.
Jin Tieling's favourite hobby is growing flowers—once he starts on this topic, he can talk about it all day. For example, he said that there are countless different varieties of chrysanthemum of all different sizes and shapes; flower shapes include round, lotusshaped, pine-cone shaped, whisker-shaped, and so on. They also come in all colours, such as red, yellow, white, purple and green, and they may have single colours or more than one colour. He has been observing chrysanthemums in minute detail for so many years that he knows how the colour of their buds change as they gradually open, starting out a deep colour and then getting lighter as they mature. He has also observed how seasonal changes affect the colour of flowers and leaves: in the spring the tiny shoots appear looking bright and tender; in summer the plants grow vigorously and the leaves are dark green; then in autumn, the colours change again, with pinkish-red appearing on the backs of the leaves.
Admiring His Father’s Work
Jin Tieling has been in this trade for more than 50 years. “I grew up making flowers with my father. I became an assistant at home around the same time as when I started attending school. I did not volunteer, but rather, the atmosphere at home made me want to help,” explained Jin. Even though his father was a chief designer and famous craftsman, it wasn't easy for him to get his feei in the door, and it was difficult to get a job at the silk flower factory due to its popularity. In 1974, when he had just graduated from middle school, he was sent to guard the Ming Tomb Reservoir.
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping gave a speech in which he said that the country must protect older artisans and folk arts in order to pass them on to future generations. Beijing started seeking out these old craftsmen, and they found Jin Tieling at the Ming Tombs Reservoir. “I didn't choose silk flowers; instead, the craft chose me,” said Jin Tieling.
Jin Tieling worked extremely hard, as he had the responsibility to uphold his father's reputation and not disgrace Hua'erjin. In 1982, when he was only 28, he won the highest award at the “National Industrial Art Hundred Flower Awards” for his work, which featured a pot flower over a metre tall, with blackish green leaves and bright yellow flowers the size of the rim of a bowl. The flowers looked delicate and charming and had long petals that “grew” vertically towards the floor, similar to the gesture of a shy lady.
Jin Tieling enjoys making chrysanthemum silk flowers, especially a type of chrysanthemum called shizhang zhulian, which was his father's most well-known work and has now become his speciality. It is extremely hard to grow in nature due to the long and thin petals, which makes it hard for nutrients to reach the petal tip. Jin Tieling spent a month making a silk flower of this. He first chiseled silk into the shape of small petals and then cut out over 1000 flaps. Next, he dyed the petals and moulded them after drying. Finally, he used tweezers to attach the petals outwards, starting from the buds. The last step was to make the flower stem by wrapping cotton paper around iron wire. Each and every step is crucial in the production process. Knowing how to grow flowers and understanding plant growth is important, as this knowledge can help craftsmen make flowers look real. Jin Tieling believes that in order to make the best silk flowers, skill alone is not enough, a craftsman should also understand everything about flowers.
Times have changed and the good old days when Huashi Street had more than 1,000 flower shops are gone. Fortunately, people can reminisce about its glorious past in the Huashi Community Museum, where the legendary story of Hua'erjin occupies an exhibition hall. Even though Jin Tieling won the “National Industrial Art Hundred Flower Awards” at a young age, he thinks that his achievement is nothing compared his father's. “In my eyes, my father is like a mountain, while I am a child who is always looking up at him,” he said.
Shaping petals with tweezers
Attaching petals together